Pre-teen Chase petulantly tosses a pink designer coat onto her bed, then says, "I wear this at school. Grandma bought it for me... cause I'm spoiled." Twelve-year-old Romy has a collection of 50 designer purses, including a $3,000 Chanel bag. A gifted musician who won a scholarship to a prestigious music school, Romy justifies her outsized desires and their exorbitant cost. "I'm saving the money of the school fees so the money I save, I'm allowed to spend on what I want."
Glorifying over-the-top spending, 12 Year Old Shopaholic and Other Big Spending Kids, a three-part British documentary that aired in June, profiles four kids, ages 9 to 15 and their well-meaning, but confused and overindulgent parents whose own unresolved issues result in massive overspending and a financial fog so thick that even the one that blankets London can't compete. As a psychologist who specializes in the study and treatment of shopping addiction, I found the documentary disturbing, selling, as it does, a bill of goods that proclaims, "whoever said money doesn't buy happiness simply didn't know where to shop."
Another young overshopper, 15-year-old Lauren, believes that new shoes chase away the blues. "I was like begging my mom for these," she says as the camera focuses on an enormous pile of shoes. "They were really expensive and I haven't even worn them once. I think when I throw stuff away, it's because I hate the way I look in clothes. At first, I like it on me and then I think it makes me look not good, so then I don't want it any more."
Who are these extremely indulgent parents who foot the bill?
"My mother wasn't a saver -- that's obviously where I got it from," says Chase's mom, Kelly. "One day we'd have nothing, and she'd make supper from what was in the cupboard. The next day we'd be in some posh restaurant or we'd be packed up and going on holiday." About her present life with her husband, Alan, and their three kids, Kelly says: "We live every day as it is. We could have loads of bills and still go to bed and sleep. Things like that don't worry me." Nor do they worry her husband Alan, whose aunt's advice was, "You come into the world with nothing. If you go out owing, you're up."
I worry that it doesn't worry them, especially since we also hear that Alan is almost bankrupt and they're behind in their rent.
Romy's mother, Niaz, also has a history of financial instability. Born to a very wealthy family in Iran, her family was forced to flee, leaving all their possessions behind. "From having everything, I went to having nothing," says Niaz. "I think it does give me the attitude to spend it today or you might not have it tomorrow."
About her daughter, an only child, Niaz says, "there was a time that she really wanted a sibling. Buying her things definitely makes me feel less guilty about not giving her a brother or a sister. It's a way of compensating. And she's not spoiled. She's grateful for what I give her."
On the other hand, Lauren's mother, Jackie, is annoyed about her daughter's spending habits, but is totally ineffective in setting appropriate limits when it comes to Lauren's incessant demands for new clothes.
"Lauren's totally different when we go out shopping," says Jackie. "She's all full of energy, and talkative. We have such a good time. It gives her a lift for that short while."
To fund Lauren's shopping addiction, Jackie holds down three jobs, including one cleaning public restrooms. Lauren did get an early morning paper route to earn extra cash; however, on the first rainy day after she started, Lauren asked her mother to drive her. This became the new normal and now, having added chauffeur to her resume, Jackie delivers almost half of the papers herself.
Nine-year-old Zach, the fourth shopaholic in the documentary, is the only child of divorced parents. "He doesn't actually have an allowance," says his father, Bash. "It's whatever he fancies and, obviously, whatever that costs. Spending money on Zach makes him happy and if he's happy, I'm happy. It's difficult for me to say no to him. I only have him on the weekends. I don't think I'm spoiling Zach."
Bash's father died when he was quite young and his mother and siblings had to make do with very little. "It's made me the type of person that wants to make sure my children don't go through what I went through," explains Bash, who has been extremely successful in business and retired before 50.
While it's abundantly clear that these are all loving parents, transforming their emotional baggage into mood enhancing, extravagant gifts is shortchanging their children of valuable opportunities for growth. None of the parents seem to be aware that the extreme focus on acquiring ever more meaningless stuff is setting their children up for serious problems later in life.
No matter how much they try to compensate, objects will simply not bring divorced parents back together, fill holes in self-esteem, produce a flesh and blood sibling, or make a teenager more accepting of her body. What this behavior will produce, however, is an unhealthy relationship with money, an extreme dependency on others, and an inability to delay gratification.
Not once do we hear these families mention budgeting for basic living expenses or saving money for education, taxes or philanthropy -- to say nothing of emergencies. There's no discussion of what's to be admired in people besides their money.
If these families could realize that it's non-financial assets, such as meaningful relationships with people, animals, nature, and community, and the pursuit of talents, hobbies, and interests that enable us to acquire true wealth, they would be making a life-long investment in their children, one that reaps continuous dividends.
To learn more about how to help a shopaholic, click here.